D.C. sets bar for firing teachers over performance

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the discussions about teacher quality have been more respectful under Gray and Henderson. That’s one reason he’s working to change the system from within, rather than pushing to scrap it entirely. Starting this school year, test scores only account for 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, down from 50 percent under the previous model.

But ask Saunders whether the teacher evaluations have improved schools, and his answer is unequivocal: “No.”

“Could we have achieved the meager improvements that we’ve achieved with less stress and less money on the taxpayers? I argue that the answer is yes,” Saunders said.

The district still lags far behind the national average on the “Nation’s Report Card” from the Education Department. Between 2009 and 2011, with the new teacher standards in place, average fourth-grade reading scores were down slightly and eighth-grade reading scores were unchanged. Math scores were up slightly in both grades.

Reform advocates point to consistent improvement on the district’s own standardized tests since the mayoral takeover in 2007.

“The district has historically had a low standard for instruction,” said Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, a reform advocacy group founded by Rhee before coming to Washington and where Henderson also worked. “I think they have many years ahead of them of steady improvement. … We won’t really know how far they’ve come until they hit the 5- and 10-year mark” of the evaluation program.

Following the district’s lead, Houston and New Haven, Conn., have also started firing teachers because of poor evaluations, and Memphis teachers chose an evaluation system modeled after the district’s. At least half the states are incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations. But no other school system has fired so many poorly rated teachers.

Rhee, who now heads a nonprofit advocacy group, said it’s not surprising the practice has gained acceptance.

“I think everyone agrees — including educators — that a teacher failing to perform well, even when given extra time and support, really should be working in another profession,” the former chancellor said in a statement.

In addition to firing teachers who perform poorly, the district has moved aggressively to reward the best teachers. Those who get top evaluations can get pay raises more quickly and receive up to $25,000 a year in bonuses. That means a teacher can earn a $131,000 annual salary, one of the highest in the nation for a public school instructor, after nine years on the job.

The system is also placing more emphasis on professional development. The union is training teachers on how to improve their evaluation scores, and Saunders said teachers, by and large, have learned how to adapt to the new criteria.

But many teachers aren’t sticking around long enough to enjoy the higher salaries. The district has one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the nation. Half of new teachers leave the system after 2 years, according to Levy’s analysis, compared with about one-third nationwide. Levy recently began examining individual schools and found two-year turnover rates as high as 94 percent at one elementary school and 66 percent at a high school.

Even some teachers who score highly under the system are wary of it. Diane Terrell, 62, a pre-kindergarten teacher who’s been in the system for nearly 40 years, has been rated “highly effective” each year the system has been in place, but has turned down the bonus money because it would force her to give up certain rights if she were laid off.

“I should not have to give up anything in order to receive something if I have proved myself highly qualified. Why should I?” Terrell said. Although she’s fared well under the evaluation system, she doesn’t measure herself by it, saying it provokes “fear and frustration” in her and her colleagues.

“I feel that I’m a quality teacher,” she said, “because I’m here to serve the children.”

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